The BAREBOW! Chronicles: Last-day Success!
Dennis Dunn 09.30.14
Next to wild sheep meat, moose is my favorite table-fare of all the game animals in North America. Since my first two hunts for Alaska-Yukon moose (1990 and 1992) had produced high adventure in the Northwest Territories but no meat for the freezer, it finally occurred to me that perhaps I should try hunting them in either Alaska or the Yukon. Therefore, in the spring of 1996, I booked a hunt for mid-September of 1997 with Kurt Lepping, who operated out of Wasilla, Alaska. I had previously hunted Alaska brown bear with him.
Although I hadn’t yet focused my vision on the goal of the Super Slam, I was becoming extremely focused on moose, in general, because I had yet to take one with my bow, and because the Canadian subspecies had also totally frustrated me throughout two different hunts in northern British Columbia. When success finally decides to favor you, however, it often comes “in bunches”—which is what happened to me with moose. In the space of just three autumns (1997 to 1999), all three varieties that are part of the Super Slam fell to my arrows. In the end, it seemed so easy, but getting there had seemed so hard.
Kurt’s moose camp was located in central Alaska, not far from Galena on the north bank of the Yukon River. The old World War II Air Force Base runway has been maintained there, and on the sunny afternoon of September 13. 1997 a small feeder-airline plane set down and taxied right up to Kurt’s waiting Cessna. From there, it was only a 10- or 15-minute hop out to base camp. Little did I suspect that my first excitement of the hunt was going to be generated by our arrival—namely, the hairy landing itself! The “landing strip,” if you could call it that, was a narrow gravel bar that ran about 100 yards along the edge of a small river. The problem was that it stretched around the inside bend of the river, making it necessary for the pilot to make his landing on one wheel only, and then taxi around the bend with the other wheel still airborne. When the second wheel finally touched down and we slowed to a grinding halt, it dawned on me it was okay to start breathing again. I’m not sure which was whiter, my face or my knuckles.
I had already learned, of course, that Kurt was a superb bush pilot, but on this hunt I was to observe his remarkable skills demonstrated many more times. Once we all had enjoyed a hot lunch there at base camp, Kurt went to work with his second aircraft, flying each of his several moose hunters out to their respective spike camps. Since the Super Cub could only be flown with one passenger at a time, the guide would be transported first, then the hunter on the second trip. My guide, Brad Saalsaa, and I were the last to go out that evening, but by the time Kurt got around to us he was in a race against dark.
As evening came upon us, the sky began clouding over, and a wind began to blow. Kurt took off with Brad and our camp gear, saying he hoped to be back in 20 minutes for me. A half an hour later, he was back on our gravel bar with a worried look on his face.
“On the ridgetop where I landed Brad, there was a severe crosswind,” he explained. “Hop in as fast as you can! There’s not a lot of light left, and I may have to make several passes before I can set the plane down without flipping it.”
Kurt quickly threw my duffel and pack frame into the small space behind the pilot’s seat and ordered me to make like a sardine by cramming myself into the few remaining cubic inches. As any experienced wilderness hunter will tell you, Super Cubs are only pilot-friendly—never hunter-friendly. If I had to sit in the extremely narrow, rear half of the plane on top of my duffel, with my bow held vertically upright between my thighs and the bowstring doing double duty as dental floss, then so be it! This was no time for questions, even though I certainly had several on the tip of my tongue.
Minutes later, when I saw what Kurt intended to try to land on, I about died—or thought I was about to, anyway. It was hardly what could be called a ridgetop, but rather the crown of a ridge crest that was flat for maybe 20 yards, but which fell away very quickly at both ends of the 20-yard flat! Brad, I learned, had hiked up from the valley floor a few days before and “cleared” this little insult to a genuine landing strip so that Kurt could get in and out of their with his super-acrobatic Super Cub. That, however, had been without a nasty crosswind thrown in to make it even more challenging.
If Kurt could make his wheels touch down on the first yard of level ground, then he’d have a chance to bring the Cub to a halt within 50 yards—just before the downhill grade would become too steep for him to be able to stop at all. Three times Kurt made a pass at the critical landing spot, and three times he lost his nerve at the last moment. The crosswind was giving him fits and generating all sorts of blue language, of which I was only catching fragments above the noise of the engine and the air turbulence on the wings.
On each pass, I could see Brad standing off to the side, with jaw clenched, wondering if he was really going to end up with a companion for the night or not. On his fourth try, Kurt actually touched his wheels down for one bounce, then gunned it again to make one more circle. On his fifth try, I guess things felt just right to him, and—as soon as the wheels made initial contact with the ground—he took the all-or-nothing chance and cut the power. It worked! The plane remained upright, and Kurt brought the craft to a halt just as we reached the orange ribbon Brad had tied on a low bush (beyond which the “strip” became a steep, unusable hillside).
The next six days involved a lot of hiking, a lot of bushwhacking, mostly good weather, but very few moose encounters—and no harvests.
The outfitter had said we should give it about six days of effort up in the higher country, and then (if that didn’t produce success) he would bring me back down to the valley and send me on a float trip down the river for the remainder of the hunt. By the time Kurt picked me up and flew me back down to base camp, I was more than ready for a change of scenery, and a change of tactics.
After spending a night in base camp, I was assigned a new guide in the person of one Linus O’Brien. Irish by name, and half-Scottish by blood, Linus was three-and-a-half characters rolled up into one. When cooking dinner for us each night, he would always wear his Royal Stuart tam-o’-shanter. Once the good meal had been stowed away, his fascinating stories of outdoor adventure would roll off his tongue, one after another, like raindrops off a rain-fly. This was a man who had had great difficulty all his life living within the bounds and restraints of civilization. As a consequence, he’d spent most of the prior 20-plus years living in the wilderness, surviving as best he could. He was also the most genuinely intellectual hunting guide I believe I’ve ever had the pleasure of hunting with. I’m not sure whether I had more fun talking with him or hunting with him over the next four days.
The first spike camp we set up on the edge of the river was just two or three miles below base camp. Directly across the river from us was a ridge which rose up rather abruptly from the bank and offered anyone willing to sweat a little (by climbing 400 feet) an expansive, unimpeded view of several square miles of the valley’s broad floor. For that afternoon and all the next day, Linus and I used that ridge as our lookout-post. Surely such a vigil would allow us, eventually, to spot a big bull traveling in search of an outlet for his pent-up testosterone. Large parts of the valley bottom were broad open spaces, covered only by grasses and low bushes. There were pockets of dark timber here and there, but close to the river it was lengthy stands of golden cottonwoods and poplars that dominated the breath-taking landscape. On the sidehills above the riverbed, quaking aspens added their own special touch of autumn glory. The blue sky overhead, that first morning on the ridge across from camp, was all that was needed to complete the magical spell that fell over me, as I drank in the remarkable scenery.
Around noon, a cow moose emerged from the woods across the river below us and then stood there for awhile, as if waiting for a suitor. Linus and I caught glimpses later in the afternoon of two more cows and a mediocre bull moving through the vegetation 500 yards downstream, but the big bull we were hoping to find had thus far eluded our binocular-empowered eyeballs. Around 3 p.m., we suddenly noticed a very large bull right out in the open across the valley. He seemed headed downriver with a purpose. There were no trees anywhere near him, and his dark form looked huge against the expansive backdrop of nothing more than foot-high grasses. We couldn’t imagine why we hadn’t picked him up sooner with our naked eyes!
Immediately, Linus started cow-calling. Within seconds, the bull stopped, listened, then altered his course to head for the river. Jumping to his feet, my guide said hurriedly, “Dennis, we’ve got to get down and across the river as fast as possible!” The bull was still at least 800 yards away, but I could see he was coming fast. Once we reached the raft and managed to get ourselves to the other side of the river into a decent ambush spot, we knew our quarry might show himself at any moment. The problem was, he didn’t! Linus made another cow call, and we waited. No response. Next Linus made a few soft grunts, then raked the tree alongside him with the old moose shoulder-blade he always had with him for that purpose. Silence! We waited, and waited, and waited. Nothing.
A half hour had now passed since our scramble down the hillside. There was something wrong. The moose must have passed us by, and perhaps was no longer within earshot. Linus decided to paddle back across the river and climb part-way back up the hill again. By being able to peer down into the trees from above, he was hoping to relocate the bull. I made up my mind, meanwhile, to work my way slowly down the river for 100 yards or so, and then try some cow-calling of my own. As the final, amorous echoes of my long, drawn-out wailing sound receded into the ether, I heard a grunt come back at me from across the river, and slightly downstream. Before I even had time to wonder if this was the bull, he appeared on the far shore about 80 yards distant and began wading back toward my bank.
An arrow was already on the string, as I watched the bull leave the water and disappear into the brush just 50 yards downstream. I figured the showdown was imminent, and that Linus must really be enjoying the drama from his ringside seat. I waited silently, with all my senses on red-alert. I had pulled my camo headnet down over my face, donned my camo gloves, and positioned myself just barely inside a little thicket. My hope was that I might look like just another nondescript part of the forest’s underbrush.
Soon, the wait became agonizingly long. I cow-called again—this time softly, facing upstream away from my imagined quarry. No grunts. Nothing. I tried a grunt or three of my own. No response. After another 15 minutes of seeing and hearing nothing, I gave it up and walked out to the riverbank, motioning my guide to come down and join me. Linus confirmed my hunch; the bull had picked up my scent immediately on leaving the riverbed, and then silently stolen away. The weather was calm at the moment, and, as is so often the case in those conditions, the still air drifts downstream with the flow of the current. The big bull would live to love another day.
Since our second day of hunting from that spike-camp produced no excitement worthy of storytelling, I will skip forward to the final two days that took place out of a final camp we set up a few miles further downriver, close to the farthest boundary of Lepping’s hunting area. There was a long sand-and-gravel-bar there, where Kurt had said he would pick us up at the end of the hunt. The exposed beach area seemed about equally covered with moose, wolf, and grizzly tracks, so we figured this was as good a place as any to experience some end-of-the-hunt excitement.
Our first morning there, Linus was chopping wood near our tent, when suddenly the sounds of his ax brought a response from across the river. Initially, a banging of antlers on wood, and then a series of low grunts. It seemed once again as though “action” were about to land on our doorstep. Linus whispered for me to get out on the brushy edge of the river in full camo. He was going to retire 50 yards or so back into the woods, to do his “thing.”
I had not even reached a satisfactory ambush spot, when a disappointingly-small bull materialized on the far bank and began swimming in my direction. Instantly I nocked an arrow and froze—still rather exposed, without much cover. Even though the bull couldn’t have been more than a two-year-old, what followed took my breath away, and still astonishes me today whenever I recall the incident. After exiting the river and shaking thoroughly, the bull turned and walked straight at me. At first I couldn’t tell if he was seeing me or not. When he reached 20 yards and closing, I realized he didn’t have a clue I was there. He was looking for a bull that wasn’t anywhere around, and my stationary form didn’t match the template he had in mind.
At 10 yards and closing, it suddenly hit me that my very survival might well depend on how successfully I could play the role of the camouflaged statue! Breathing and blinking were now out of the question, and I had already closed down my eyes to the narrowest of slits. Whatever slight air movement there was, if any, must have been from him to me—or more likely a cross-breeze. Even so, to this day I’ll never understand why he didn’t smell me. On his compass, he was merely charting a course between two small trees. From my deeply-worried, slightly-bent-over perspective, his front shoulder passed within 18 inches of the bill of my camo-cap, and one antler—nearly nine feet off the ground—passed right over my head. The bull never stopped. He never sniffed. He just kept on—oblivious!
My “last-day success” occurred the final morning, right at our gravel-bar campsite. We had just finished an early breakfast. After doing the dishes so as to minimize the chance of bear problems, Linus picked up his trusty moose shoulder-blade and said, “It’s high time! Let’s go get you a nice bull, Dennis!” We walked upriver 100 yards and sat down on the edge of a small clearing, perhaps 35 yards from the riverbank. Some birds were warbling close by, and everything seemed right with the world. The slick river-surface appeared to be steaming in anticipation of a warmer day, but the sunny weather wasn’t the only thing about to heat up.
As for the various techniques used for calling moose, Linus was definitely of the school that “less is more.” He used calling only sparingly; mostly he preferred just to use the shoulder blade for raking bark off a tree trunk, or scraping the brush. Over a 30-minute period, Linus used his “scraper” only two or three times. “On such a quiet morning, it doesn’t take much,” he explained, “and moose have such fine hearing they can hear this kind of noise from a long ways off.”
He was right, and it didn’t take 15 minutes for his crystal ball to come into focus. Suddenly he was pointing into the woods behind me, and motioning me to get ready to draw. My straining ears finally picked up a low grunt, and I rose to my feet ready for action. This time something within told me it was all going to come together perfectly.
A minute later another grunt reached our ears—this time much closer. Thirty seconds later, a small twig snapped, and then a second, lighter one. Close, I thought, he is really getting close! The next thing I heard was the sound of an antler brushing aside some saplings. Indeed, I was standing on the edge of an entire, thick, forest of 10- to 12-foot poplars, and this bull was coming right through them—bout to pop into the open no more than 40 feet in front of me! It was time to draw.
I did so just in the nick of time. No sooner had the wheels of my bow turned over and my string fingers lurched into their anchor position under my cheekbone, than there he was—stepping out into the open, fully broadside. Unfortunately, I had not thought to retreat a step or two inside the edge of the woods. The visitor (startled at seeing me there, fully exposed) instantly bolted forward some 20 yards, then turned 90 degrees and began walking straight across in front of me. I waited no longer.
The arrow struck home, right up to the fletching—though a little higher and farther back than I would have considered ideal. I had the feeling, nonetheless, that it was good enough to prove lethal pretty quickly. When Linus and I compared notes, such proved to be his feeling, as well. The stricken moose had trotted off in the direction of our tent, and we began joking about how considerate of him it would be, were he simply to expire right in camp. Not wanting to get his adrenaline pumping by pursuing him too quickly, we walked out on the gravel bar, built a fire, and ate some nuts and candy chews. Linus speculated that he carried about a 50-inch rack. Not a Pope and Young bull—but respectable, nevertheless.
The hour passed much too slowly, yet we tried to help it along by coming up with intellectual solutions to most of the major problems of the world—after which we finally decided to cut the live bull and go find the dead one. His dark, inert form lay just 30 yards from camp. I accepted Linus’ hearty handshake and then traced the bull’s spoor backwards, to where he’d been walking when I released my arrow. The distance was just over 100 yards. The shot had been 24. Talk about thrilled? It was my very first moose, and my first-ever “last-day success!” The moose-monkey was finally off my back.
Editor’s note: This article is the thirty-second of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here. Read the thirty-first Chronicle here.
Top photo by Dennis Dunn